The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading

Author: Reid Smith, Pamela Snow, Tanya Serry & Lorraine Hammond

Year: 2021

Paper Description

This paper is a review that investigates the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension in primary school children. The study aims to understand how preexisting knowledge and knowledge-building interventions impact the reading comprehension abilities of children aged six to 12 in mainstream English-language education classes. The paper outlines the methodology used to select and analyze empirical studies published between 1950 and 2020 that fit the inclusion criteria. The focus is on studies that involve interventions designed to enhance children’s background knowledge or studies that explore correlations between preexisting knowledge and reading performance. The goal of the review is to provide insights into the effects of background knowledge on children’s reading comprehension skills and to inform educational practices for promoting better understanding of complex written texts in classrooms.

Key Takeaway 1

Diverse Measures and Impact: Studies used different ways to assess comprehension and background knowledge. Higher background knowledge consistently improved comprehension, compensating for weaker reading skills in constructing the textbase but having a lesser effect on inference-making.

Key Takeaway 2

Interaction with Text Coherence: Background knowledge interacted with text coherence and cohesion. Low-knowledge readers benefited from highly cohesive texts, while high-knowledge readers gained deeper understanding from less cohesive texts, suggesting a “reverse cohesion effect.”

Standout Quote

“We consistently found that higher levels of background knowledge enable children to better comprehend a text. Readers who have a strong knowledge of a particular topic, both in terms of quantity and quality of knowledge, are more able to comprehend a text than a similarly cohesive text for which they lack background knowledge.”


Reading comprehension, background knowledge, education research, primary school children, comprehension assessment, text coherence, text cohesion, reader misconceptions, learning strategies, literacy development teaching practices, educational psychology, reading skills, academic performance, classroom strategies,